Hunting for the Swing Vote: A Sociological Analysis of Israel’s Third Election
Claudia De Martino 14 February 2020

Israel is coming closer to its third round of elections in less than a year and electoral lists are already closed for the March 2nd ballot. If the first two rounds revolved around the cumbersome presence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the third round is likely to set a different agenda. Of course, the referendum on the Netanyahu corruption charges is still the issue of the day, but this timeless so as by now most Israelis already know that he will not step down willingly but rather fight till the very end, enjoying widespread support from his constituency, as his 72% of Likudniks preferences confirmed last December 26th. Therefore, despite pressuring him on his corruption charges, Benny Gantz – the leader of the main opposition party Kahol Lavan (Blue & White) – has changed his rhetoric: he no longer bets on corruption, neither on “security first” on Gaza or Iran, nor on the potential area C annexation, but rather on problems and concerns of minorities likely to tip the electoral balance.

In fact, the two biggest parties’ – Likud and Kahol Lavan realized they are competing to conquer only 3 to 4 seats, that is about 200,000 “swing voters”, as the great majority of the 6,453,254 millions of voters going to the ballots next March have long since set their minds on their party preference. Moreover, the two rival parties do not distinguish themselves on ideological grounds, but rather for their social messages, with the Likud standing for middle-class social mobility and the Blue & White for social justice and conservatism, overall identified with the Ashkenazi upper intellectual and political establishment.


Israel’s voting blocks

Dahlia Sheindlin, researcher at the Mitvim Institute, says that out of pre-electoral polls and review of the last twenty years election results it stands out that 45% of the Israelis have been steadily opting for the Right, between 25-28% for the Centre and some 20% for the Left. When the Centre and Left merge or join forces, there is a slim chance for the two main blocs to equal each other, as the last two election rounds have shown. However, she points out, those percentages are valid only if the Arab minority turns out to vote in large numbers. As for the Jewish-only majority, 55% lean to the Right, between 25-30% to the Centre and only 15% to the Left, which would secure a steady majority of 66 Knesset seats for the Right against 54 for the Centre-Left. These data, she claims, proves the key-role played by the Arab minority in the Israeli electoral system, and explains the multiple attempts to periodically ostracize Arab party voters by turning them away or banning individual Arab politicians, as in the recent case of Heba Yazbak of the Balad faction, just reinstated by the Supreme Court. Running together, Arab parties, representing 20.9% of the Israeli citizens, have indeed proved to be able to win 13 seats, thus potentially being a key-partner in any future Centre-Left coalition, though doomed to support any government from outside.

The Russian vote, to the contrary, is much more split, despite representing the third biggest minority and the largest Jewish one – 15% of the population – and controlling about 16-17 Knesset seats, is much more split. According to Izabella Tabarovsky of the Kennan Institute, Russians divide themselves along generational and ideological lines, as well as on immigration dates. For example, the Russians of the first immigration wave (1990s) are staunchly right-wing, whereas the next generations are more centre leaning; 60% are very secular but some 15% are atheists and fed up with the Rabbi religious establishment altogether. Some feel a patriotic connection with motherland Russia which translates into a strong cultural and political attachment, whereas other blame it for its veiled anti-Semitism and mistrust Putin for his pro-Iranian involvement in Syria. Finally, the great majority (70%) believe that there should be no special status for Russians as they first and foremost identify with Israel, whereas the remaining 30% would keep an ethnic-based party to care for community special interests. Overall, Russians are far more divided than Arabs and the desperate attempt of the Israel Beitenu party to blend all their preferences into a single political platform independent from the two major blocs has suffered a setback, as the “Russian” party only conquered half (8) of the Knesset seats potentially allotted to the community and a good share of its vote went to the two major parties.

The tiniest Jewish minority, that of the Ethiopian Jews, is also courted by the two rival blocs to gain two-three additional seats. Despite being only about 140.000 citizens, they are amid the battleground as they have no historical attachment to either bloc. In the last years, Ethiopians have flocked in large numbers to the Likud ranks for two pragmatic reasons: the first is that the party was identified as the major powerhouse, being in office discontinuously for 28 years, and the second that the Likud pledged to bring into Israel new waves of Falash Mura, one of the lost Ethiopian Jewish tribes still left behind in Gondar, consisting of some 8000 prospective immigrants. Lately, it seems that the Likud lost its edge with the community, both because it did not stay loyal to its pledge and because it capped the return of the Falash Mura ‘aliyah at 600 people. Moreover, no Likud Knesset Members (KMs) launched an investigation or display of solidarity for the killing of Salomon Tekah, an Ethiopian man accidentally shot by the police in Haifa in June 2019, whose murder sparked countrywide social riots. This shifted much of the Ethiopian support towards the Blue & White party.  However, the Ethiopian leadership is still erratic, not ideologically-bound and easy to entice, as one recent episode strikingly illustrated: confronted with the news of having being placed 33rd on the Kahol Lavan ballot paper, Ethiopian KM and deputy leader Gadi Yevarkan returned to the Likud to obtain a higher ranking 20th spot on the eve of the final party lists’ registrations at the Central Electoral Committee. The bold move prompted Gantz to launch a new slogan targeting Ethiopian voters pointing to both the Likud’s and the defecting leader’s duplicity: “Bibi, the Ethiopians are not for sale. Well, maybe only one.”

Another tiny minority is being highly contended by the two blocs: that of the Druze, also consisting of some 140.000 people, geographically concentrated in the Golan and so far historically loyal to the State of Israel, to the point that most men serve in the army (IDF). Generally the community has cast its preferences for the center-right parties, Kulanu, Israel Beitenu or the Likud , but lately has grown disaffected of the government by two decisions – the issuing of the Nation-State law that alienates minorities from the State and the Golan Heights annexation – that were not discussed but rather forced onto the community. To the cry “equality is increasingly missing”, the Druze people rallied around Kahol Lavon (55%) in September 2019, even electing their first woman member of Parliament, Gadeer Kamal Mreeh. However, in this next election round the Likud is willing to lay it all on the line to reconquer the Druze vote, even resorting to old co-optation strategies of community leaders, recruiting 12 to 13 mayors of Druze cities likely to bring along their people.

In the meantime, the latest elections polls have found out that among the tight ultra-Orthodox community, consisting in 12% of the whole population, some 17% would not vote for the two ultra-Orthodox self-identified parties. Of those, a great majority does not cast their vote at all (the Jerusalem faction), refraining from supporting the electoral game altogether. The remaining part is split between the right-wing bloc. This small constituency is also courted by the two rival blocs, though traditionally leaning to the right.


Racing for the balance

The “swing voters”, in fact, are the real hunting ground able to tip the balance between the two main forces and the two broader, head-to-head coalitions (the “Left-leaning or moderate” and the “Right-wing” blocs, currently projected to win 58 and 56 seats respectively). Those 200,000 prospective “undecided” voters are made of two main subgroups: the first half are those who were wavering between the two main parties in the last two rounds but ended up not voting at all; the second half are those who voted for either, but are still likely to change their mind at the last minute for the other.

Some Israeli commentators called them the “soft-right”, that is a broad and diversified cluster of voters who is made of former voters of dissolved centrist parties, such as Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, the Ethiopian immigrants, who lack a sound political background in the country, some immigrants from the former Soviet Union, a few free-standing Ultra-Orthodox and small non-Jewish minorities, such as the Druze. To those, another constituency should be added: the middle-class of middle-sized cities such as Rishon le-Tzion and Holon which, for their sociological composition, are natural swing areas. They are in fact affluent communities close to Tel Aviv, without being part of its “liberal” ethos, and thus are interested in the overall ideological debate among political forces without taking an immediate side. Despite their minority status in the general political framework, these groups’ preferences, rather than any grand debate about the “Deal of the Century”, will probably tilt the balance between the two leading blocs.



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